On June 27, 1985, four anti apartheid activists were brutally murdered on behalf of the South African government. Twenty five years later, their killers still walk free.
The murders of these four men illustrate one of the darkest passages of South Africa’s history.
South African filmmaker David Forbes has directed, edited and produced the film The Cradock Four to tell the story of these four extraordinary men.
Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli were political activists outspoken against the apartheid regime and then-president PW Botha’s pro-apartheid policies.
Because of this, the government authorised a “death signal” calling for the “permanent removal from society” of these men.
Only two months earlier, the PEBCO Three ― Sipho Hashe, Qaqawuli Godolozi, Champion Galela ― were also brutally murdered by security police. The murders were found to be the “trial run” and set the precedent for the murders of the Cradock Four.
The bodies of the Cradock Four were found badly burned on the border of Bluewater Bay in Port Elizabeth. A coronial inquest later found the men were drugged, tortured and stabbed more than 60 times before being set alight.
ANC leader and first post-apartheid South African president Nelson Mandela said: “The death of these gallant freedom fighters marked a turning point in the history of our struggle.
“No longer could the regime govern in the old way. They were the true heroes of the struggle.”
I caught up with Forbes at the 2011 Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Doha, Qatar’s capital city. The festival showcased documentary films from around the world focusing on human rights and investigative journalism.
“Never again will I remain silent,” Forbes said ― indicating the sincere level of dedication he had to telling the story of these men.
Forbes pledged to himself, the widows, and to the rest of South Africa against apartheid that the world would know what happened to the Cradock Four, so their stories would not just fade into into the darkness unrecognised.
Forbes spent years researching the case. From the time the murder was known to the public, he kept newspaper clippings and tried to find out as much information as possible about the case.
He applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Council a number of times for archival footage and documentation regarding the murders.
When a court finally ruled in 2006, four years after his initial application, it found Forbes had the right to access the files under the Freedom of Information Act in South Africa.
Unfortunately, most of the material had been destroyed and there still significant pieces of information missing.
The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 had illustrated the level of cruelty the South African government had against the black population. More than 60 protesters were killed by the police, most of them unarmed and shot in the back.
Forbes was only six when this happened, but it left a lasting impression on him.
He was raised by leftist parents, but was conscripted as an officer into the army after high school. When the June 1976 Soweto Uprising took place, Forbes had 150 men under his command on standby as part of the South African Security Police.
They had live ammunition, tear gas and trucks ready to take down anti-apartheid activists.
Fortunately, the call to use them never came to Forbes, who was a staunch anti apartheid activist.
“If you were white in South Africa,” Forbes told me, “you were immediately conscripted into the Army after high school.
“I decided to use the money from my conscription to go to university and study film to let the world know what is happening in my country.”
In 1977, Steve ‘”Bantu” Biko was killed in police custody. The film Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington, was made 10 years after his death to tell the world about the atrocities of an apartheid regime.
Since the murders of the Cradock Four, Forbes's film is the only one that has been made on the topic. The South African Broadcasting Corporation refuses to air it on their station.
The film won the Durban Peace Award, but there has been no official governmental recognition of the documentary.
After three coroner’s inquests, it was found that 12 members of the South African government, including Botha, were guilty of ordering the deaths of the Cradock Four.
Though they were found guilty, no charges have been laid and they remain unpunished.
“These four men knew the dangers of speaking up against their government yet they refused to remain silen,” Forbes said. “They believed in being a voice for their people and they stood up for what they believed in, they were the true revolutionaries of South Africa.”
The Cradock Four is currently in negotiations to screen in Australia.